Story and photo by Ben Corbett
Experiencing Cheech & Chong’s “Light Up America” performance was like warping right into the 1970s. Passing through the doors of the historic Paramount Theater in Denver, Colorado, the first thing that hits your nostrils is the perfume of dozens of strains of pot. The aroma, accompanied by the classic hit, “Panama Red,” issuing from the house speakers, was enough to convince the crowd straight off it was going to be a special night.
Most thought it would never happen. After all, the reunion tour marked the first time Cheech & Chong performed together on stage in 26 years. So, the turnout wasn’t a big surprise – nor was who turned out. The audience was mostly the 30 to 50-year-old Dazed and Confused crowd – those 70s and 80s stoners who used to rip around in rusted-out Ford Mavericks with somebody in the backseat sweeping the seeds from a knot of brick weed on a stolen McDonald's tray; everybody laughing their ass off to “Pedro and the Man at the Drive-Inn” and “Sister Mary Elephant.” But as Tommy Chong once said, “Cheech & Chong are a rite of passage, man,” and amongst the 70s refugees who caught the duo back in the day, just as many twenty-something initiates filled the ranks for the reunion show to grab the torch (and touch it to the next-generation bowl).
Following a short standup routine by Chong's wife, Shelby, Cheech bounced onto the stage to a sustained burst of applause, and launched into the hitchhiker scene from Up In Smoke, when Pedro De Pacas first meets Anthony “Man” Stoner. In this version of the classic routine, Chong’s “Stoner” dons what appears to be a triple-D cup bra before beginning the iconic stoner banter. When they finally do smoke a joint, rather than it tasting “like dog shit,” the skit is updated from the 1978 version. Now the weed has been retrieved from a human mule, complete with K-Y Jelly residue and the flavor of Preparation-H.
In a recent interview, Cheech & Chong explained that they never were “standup” comics. Rather, the two were a stage act doing theater, and opening for rock bands like The Rolling Stones, Santana, and The Allman Brothers in the early 70s. The standup thing only happened after they parted ways in 1985, when Cheech split for other climes and Chong started doing solo standup club gigs. So the Light Up America tour was a delicious variety of their reworked old sketches (updated with nods to eBay and the Internet), tossed up with routines from Chong's standup act, all tied together with some new work and classic tunes.
The stage set-up was simple: two chairs sitting in front of a screen with various slides that changed for each sketch. But it was this simplicity that gave the performance the feel of 70s authenticity. During act breaks and costume changes, Chong would pop out to do some stuff borrowed from his solo show, everything from getting his cat high to his infamous federal bust in 2003 when he did nine months for selling glass pipes. “They think that by taking away the pipes that stoners are going to quit smoking pot?” said Chong. “If you have a bud and no way to smoke it, you turn into MacGyver in a heartbeat.” Addressing Cheech & Chong’s 23-year hiatus, Chong explained that after the wild success of their movies in the early 80s, they became fabulously wealthy. “We got rich,” said Chong, “and I learned one thing: You can't get a rich Mexican to do shit.”
Another classic sketch performed on the Light Up America tour – “Let’s Make a Dope Deal,” with guest Bob Bitchin' – met with much crowd enthusiasm. The show also featured “Old Man in the Park,” as well as a brand new sketch in which Cheech dresses in a silver and red jumpsuit with cape, called “The First Mexican in Space.”
The music segment of the show saw Cheech's cousin “Red” Mendoza drop in from Cheech and Chong's Next Movie to do a couple of country numbers. “Red” also tossed out one-liners to the cackling fold, like, “Relative humidity…That's the sweat that forms on your balls when you're doing your cousin.” Soon Blind Melon Chitlin' stumbled out to sing “The Dumb Motherfucker Song,” segueing into “Downhome Blues.” Chitlin’ was followed by one of the highlights of the night, the eagerly anticipated “Earache My Eye,” performed by Cheech's other alter ego, Alice Bowie (from 1974’s Wedding Album). Dressed in a skin-tight tattooed bodysuit under a pink tutu and sporting Mickey Mouse ears and a Mardi Gras mask, Cheech darted back and forth across the stage fronting a slideshow of rock concert audiences, lip-synching the words while wailing viciously on a hot pink Stratocaster. In a moment of self-parody, after this intense act, a stagehand brought out a walker for Cheech, now 62, to exit the stage.
Sketch after stellar sketch the audience got an infusion of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll – between ducking down to hit another joint and standing up to cheer. And Cheech and Chong delivered with the same abandon and chemistry the two shared during their 1970s prime. A little balder and grayer? Sure. But for an act as timeless and central to Americana as Cheech and Chong, their message is as important now as ever. Hit after classic hit, the house was awestruck, eyes gleaming with an honest nostalgia that even The Rolling Stones can't deliver for $400 a ticket.
During the final stretch of the show, Cheech and Chong came out as themselves to sing. With Denver being almost fifty percent Hispanic today, and the audience reflecting that percentage, the crowd resonated, chiming in with “Born in East L.A.” (performed live for the first time during this tour) that spun into a salsa with Cheech singing while Chong and Shelby danced. “I'm a Mexican-American” followed, building momentum for the peak. Both Cheech and Chong were in their element, home at last, smiling ear-to-ear, and that wasn't written into the act. These days during encores, rather than holding up lighters, concertgoers light up their cell phones in a stroke of ultimate cheese. So when you actually do see an amber-blue flame thrown proudly from a Bic, you know right away who has the weed. When Cheech & Chong wrapped up their performance with the all-time classic stoner anthem “Up In Smoke,” as the entire audience sang along word-for-word, Cheech stood on stage holding out his hand, flicking his thumb. And the lighters came out en force.